Updated: Apr 10, 2018
There are many strands of the Coffea Arabica species, some natural varieties, and some man-made cultivars. Here we look at some of the most well-known varieties and their general characteristics.
Most coffee strands are descendent of Typica and Bourbon. Other varieties, like Catimor, are hybrids of Arabica and Robusta/Arabica hybrids. Many of these were cultivated for their rust and pest resistant qualities.
Many varieties are superficially distinct, with different plant sizes, leaf shapes/colours and fruit size. There are also differences in the quality and taste of their coffee.
Mocha (Mokha, Mocca, Moka) – These tiny, little coffee beans originate in Yemen and get their name from the old Arab port of Al Mahka. The Mocha varietals I’ve tried taste somewhat like wet-hulled coffees and a little sweaty. Despite the description they have not been unpleasant. They are perhaps the oldest cultivated variety.
Typica – One of the first cultivars, it was taken around the world and mutated into other varieties. These include the many island coffees like Hawaiian Kona, Jamaican and PNG Blue Mountain and Sumatran Garundang. It suffers greatly with leaf rust and pests.
Bourbon – One of the two earliest known varieties that are farmed today. Bourbons comes in red, pink, orange and yellow colours when ripe. They are known for their smooth mouthfeel, sweetness, pleasant acidity and chocolatey flavour. First appeared on Réunion Island, named Bourbon before that. French Mission varieties were Bourbon plants brought back to Africa.
Caturra – A natural mutation of Bourbon first found in Brazil, Caturra yields high and is farmer-friendly in that the trees are shorter and easier to pick from. The variety is not very pest and disease resistant. They tend to have bright citric acidity and sweet profile.
Pacas – Just like Caturra, this is a mutation of Bourbon discovered in El Salvador, 1949. This hardy, dwarf variety can be planted more densely than its parent and has good cup quality.
Villa Sarchi – Another naturally occurring Bourbon mutation, this time in Costa Rica. Villa Sarchi coffees tend to be sweet and fruity.
Mundo Novo – A Bourbon-Typica hybrid. Farmed mostly in South America, this variety is highly susceptible to all rust, disease and pests. High yield with standard cup quality.
Catimor – A hybrid of the Timor and Caturra varieties created in Portugal, 1959. They are fairly rust and pest resistant but because of the Timor influence, quality is generally low. Expect a light-medium body, medium acidity and sweet caramel and white/yellow fruit flavours. Timor was found in the 1940s on guess where. It is a natural hybrid of Arabica and Robusta.
Maragogype (Maragogipe) – This variety first appeared naturally in Brazil as a mutation of Typica. Yield is relatively low but the leaves and fruit of the plant are very large. The seeds are sometimes dubbed elephant beans for their great size. This variety tends to have a smooth, full body and bright acidity. Unfortunately low yielding for its high cup quality.
Pacamara – A hybrid of the Pacas and Maragogype varieties. Bred in 1958 in El Salvador, it’s desirable for its large bean size and greater yield than Maragogype. Sadly, it also highly susceptible to leaf rust.
SL-28 – One very successful Kenyan lab variety. These Kenyan coffees were selected by Scott Laboratories in the 1930s, bred for high quality, drought resistant qualities. Although not greatly rust resistant, the variety’s delightful quality ensured its survival. These coffees can a have a delicious syrupy body with bright and exciting acidity, frequently described as blackcurrant.
SL-34 – Another of the Scott Laboratories’ successes. Cup quality is not as good as the SL-28 but yield is greater and it grows at lower altitudes. It was selected from a French Mission variety. Expect a heavy mouthfeel and fruity acidity.
Ruiru-11 – A great variety for producers, it can be planted densely and is resistant to disease and rust. Another product of Kenya’s breeding programme, this coffee lacks the cup quality of the SL varieties due to its Robusta heritage. Released 1985.
Batian – A relatively new variety bred in Kenya, this variety’s cup quality is as good as the SL varieties but has the added benefit of greater rust and Coffee Berry Disease resistance. As the variety is new (2010) it is still difficult to find it as a single origin varietal, although with more research and improved farming methods, this variety may fulfil its promising potential.
Catuaí – This plant is a hybrid of Mundo Novo and Caturra, created by the Brazilian Instituto Agronomico. Cup quality is mid-range. This is another dwarf variety, meaning it can be planted more densely and the fruit is easier to harvest.
Geisha (Gesha) – One of the Ethiopian heirlooms taken to Costa Rica and made famous by the Petersons. These coffees can be remarkably complex with a broad range of tea, citrus and floral flavours. Panamanian Geishas are genetically distinct from other Geisha varieties. See more here.
Ethiopian Varieties – Many of the coffees that come out of Ethiopia are named by region. The most famous are Harar (Harrar), Sidamo and Yirgacheffe. I try not to give flavour characteristics for these as the clear fruit, floral and chocolate flavours are interchangeable with region, though some exhibit specific flavours more often than others. Common flavours are tangerine orange, blueberry, jasmine, tea (all kinds) and tropical fruit.
Heirloom – Not so much a variety, but a collection of wild growing and mutating varieties found around the world, especially in Ethiopia. Answers to coffee’s difficult future with problems such as disease, genes and climate change might be found in these heirlooms, as well as potentially new species of coffee which could greatly diversify genealogy.
Castillo – A hybrid cultivar produced by Cenicafé. It was rolled out in 2005 as a rust resistant improvement on the Colombia variety. Some criticise its cup quality knowing it has an Arabica/Robusta hybrid in its lineage, however, blind cupping results tend to show it has no less quality than the Caturra. It has seven sub-cultivars.
Colombia – A product of Cenicafé’s research, Colombia is a hybrid of Caturra and Timor. Released in 1982, it provided farmers with a safe crop that was at the time, rust resistant.
Kent – A Typica variety adapted to India with high yield. Also cultivated in Kenya.
Longberry – Can you guess the shape? This variety emerged in Indonesia and is thought to be a mutation of Typica.
S795 Jember – First released in the 1940s, this is a cross of Kent and other Indian varieties. In Indonesia it commonly referred to as Jember. The variety is capable of rich, fruity flavours like strawberry and tropical fruit. Thought to have Coffea Liberica heritage (S288). Rust resistant.
Java – This variety grows happily at lower altitudes (1200 MASL). This natural mutation of an Ethiopian variety appeared on Java Island and happily, exhibits tolerance to rust, disease and has good cup quality. Also farmed in Cameroon. Not to be confused with Javanica, a variety grown in Nicaragua.
Credit - Cafe Imports - Coffee Species and offshoot varieties
The varieties and sub-varieties of Arabica are incredibly vast in number. For this list I have selected varieties I have more experience with and those that are important to the coffee industry for reasons including widespread cultivation, historical significance and cup quality. For a fuller database the World Coffee Research website is fantastic. Enjoy.